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Hawaiian Film Festival Offers Moviegoers Unique View of Asia

  • Heidi Chang

Hawaiian hula dancers usually wear skirts made of grass… but not the one advertising this year's Hawaii International Film Festival. Her skirt was fashioned of flowing strips of film stock. It was a fitting image for a festival that has showcased new films and emerging talent from Asia and the Pacific for almost a quarter-century.

Each year, thousands of filmgoers pack the Hawaii International Film Festival, because they know this is the place to see new films from across Asia and around the Pacific.

The festival's executive director, Chuck Boller, travels far and wide to find each year's entries.

"Everything from Australia and New Zealand, through the Philippines, Southeast Asia for example, India even. Traditional Asia like Japan, China, Korea," he explains. "We go into places like Kazakhstan, and Mongolia looking for films. Also, the U.S., Canada and Mexico."

The Hawaii International Film Festival began in 1981, as a project of the East-West Center in Honolulu. Since then, it has evolved into an independent non-profit organization. Mr. Boller says its mission is to create cultural understanding between the East and the West through film.

"We do it because we think that Asian and Pacific Rim cinema are underappreciated. They're just starting to get quite a bit more notice in the United States, and some films in particular," Mr. Boller says. " But another reason we focus on those areas of the world, is that the ethnic make up of the people in Hawaii is from those areas. So we have a natural built-in audience that's very eager for films from their home countries in their native languages."

By featuring nearly 170 films from 24 countries, the annual festival plays an important role in attracting international media attention. Many of the features are picked up by other festivals. Film critic and festival juror, Emanuel Levy, says this exposes American audiences to artists and directors they might not see otherwise.

"Foreign language cinema in general, is in dismay in the U.S. So nowadays, the only way to see foreign language cinema from different countries is to go to film festivals such as the Hawaii International," he says. "Because if we have to depend on what gets released commercially in the United States, we would be very limited in what we see."

The festival awarded its first-ever Achievement in Acting Award this year to Maggie Cheung, one of Asia's biggest stars. She has appeared in 75 films and is currently starring in the blockbuster Hero, directed by China's Zhang Yimou.

"It's not really a huge surprise that Hero is doing well following the success of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," notes Ms. Cheung, "because I think for the Western audience, especially the Americans, martial arts films has always been something popular and to now have like new martial arts films, instead of always watching Bruce Lee's or Jackie Chan's, you know, we're more used to that kind of martial arts films."

Earlier this year, the stunning Hong Kong native won the Best Actress award at Cannes for the Canadian-French film Clean. She says landing a major role in American films can be a challenge for an Asian actress.

"Where I come from it's not so hard because, you know, we have all these films being made each year. But I think if I ever wanted to make it here, it could be harder," she says. "[But] it's changing already, and I think in five years, it'll be just normal to see a Chinese actress playing a main part in a Western film."

The festival's top feature award went to Taste of Tea, by Katsuhito Ishii. Chuck Boller recalls that the Japanese director's first film, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, made a big impression when it was shown at the festival in 1997.

"Quentin Tarantino was at our festival that year and he saw the film and liked it so much he looked up the director," Mr. Boller says. "He then went to Japan to visit the director and ended up hiring the director to direct the animated sequences in Kill Bill."

In the long run, many here believe the Hawaii International Film Festival and film in general, can play a powerful role in promoting cultural understanding worldwide. Maggie Cheung points to the success of her recent movie, Hero.

"The film is not about the history of China, but then I guess a lot of people would learn a lot of things about China [from watching it]," she says. " If I saw an Iranian film, I would learn a lot of things about Iran that I didn't know, or at least you'd get a feel of how the people are, their landscape, their language and everything."

Festival juror David Wenham agrees. The Australian actor stars in Getting' Square, which took home the festival's Audience Award.

"I think art and cinema is something that transcends boundaries. It crosses boundaries and it can change people, regardless of the way one lives," he says. " I think the geography doesn't matter, you know, film can touch people. And it can, yeah, transcend language, as well."